Sonoma actor declares independence
“I have some of the funniest lines in the show, and I appreciate that,” notes Sonoma actor Jeremy Berrick, talking about the lavish musical “1776,” now running at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Berrick plays the real-life character of Stephen Hopkins, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is, as he points out, a funny role.
“He drinks a lot of rum,” says Berrick. “And he talks about things in very colorful ways. He’s obstinate, and surly, and unpredictable. I love those kinds of characters.”
Evidently. Over the last 10 years, he’s appeared in more than a dozen shows, often assailing the parts of villains, nemeses, madmen and troublemakers. Last year, also at Spreckels, he appeared as J. Bruce Ismay in “Titanic: The Musical,” playing the man whose arrogance and greed was a major cause of the great ship’s unhappy encounter with that iceberg. He also terrorized Sebastian the Crab in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” portraying a knife-wielding chef with a taste for crustaceans. At the Raven Players in Healdsburg he played the unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” and he kidnapped an orphan as Rooster Hannigan in “Annie,” at 6th Street Playhouse.
“Small parts with big impacts on the storyline, those are my kinds of roles,” Berrick says.
Born and raised in San Francisco, he says that, when growing up, he was always more interested in sports than theater.
“I did do one musical in high school,” he recalls. “It was ‘The Music Man.’ I played one of the four guys in the barbershop quartet. I kind of liked it, but never did another musical until years later.”
After years living in Marin County, Berrick moved to Sonoma in 2004. He’s now retired, he says, having worked for years as a business consultant, training small companies to run more efficiently.
“Earlier, I worked in a comedy club,” he says, with a laugh, “and I’ve even answered phones in a law firm – both of which probably gave me additional training for how to behave on stage.”
That training has come in handy in portraying Hopkins, a governor and chief justice of Rhode Island, who was one of the Continental Congress members who debated, and eventually approved, the move to separate the American colonies from English rule. Though it might seem unlikely stuff for a musical, the play is quite entertaining, and as directed by Larry Williams, is as funny as it is, at times, extremely dramatic. The large cast of 26 men and two women fill a series of difficult roles, only some of which – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams – are household names.
“This show has a lot of male roles, and it’s very hard to find that many men in this area who are talented enough to perform such colorful characters,” Berrick says, “people who are willing to commit to a play in which very few of those characters have a whole lot of lines.”
Fortunately, Berrick says, every line in “1776” matters.
“It’s a brilliantly written play,” he says. “And it’s a wonderful challenge, because each line has to be effectively delivered, or the play doesn’t work.”
Berrick admits that when he was approached to consider playing Stephen Hopkins, he’d never seen or read “1776” before
“But then I read it, and I was delighted to see that I’d be the comic relief,” he says, even if the real Stephen Hopkins might have balked at the very idea. “It’s an entertaining show and a nicely written story, but clearly some liberties were taken,” he says. “I’ve read a lot about Stephen Hopkins, and I could never find anything that said he had a particular fondness for rum. But in ‘1776,’ he’s drinking rum all the time. There are definitely things thrown into the play that didn’t actually happen.”
That said, there is one element of the script that is absolutely genuine.
“The dispatches from George Washington,” Berrick says, “which the courier reads throughout the play – those are word-for-word from the historical documents, the actual words of George Washington writing to the Continental Congress, begging for help as his troops were starving, asking for money, asking for men, asking for supplies. The historical accuracy of those moments, when those letters are read aloud, that always moves me a lot – though I very much doubt General Washington ever broke into song as he was writing them.”
Asked if he has a favorite moment in the show, Berrick takes no time identifying it.
“It’s the actual signing scene, the moment at the end when we all finally step up and sign the Declaration of Independence, after two hours of debate and argument,” he says. “It’s so powerful, it really is, to act out that moment in history. My character stands at the desk, and says that he wants to see the face of every man as they sign the Declaration. So that’s what I do. I watch every actor step up and sign it, and I look at their faces and reflect on what that moment must have really been like.”
He says he’s enjoyed getting to breathe life into a story that some might assume was dry and uninteresting.
“Congress in 1776 was not some boring, stuffy group of individuals,” Berrick notes. “It was just a bunch of very different, very colorful people, all trying their best to represent their colonies.
“I really don’t know how historically accurate it all is,” he adds, “But I hope the audience walks away with a deeper understanding of how many sacrifices and compromises were made by these guys in order to create one of the most important documents the world has ever seen.”